Visitors! Danger!

Lorraine Daston

  • Charles Darwin. Vol. II: The Power of Place by Janet Browne
    Cape, 591 pp, £25.00, November 2002, ISBN 0 224 04212 2

Among the icons of science, Newton is admired and Einstein revered, but Darwin is liked. This is rather puzzling on the face of it. His theories concerning organic evolution, and the satellite doctrines that have attached themselves to his name – Social Darwinisms of the political Right and Left, eugenics, robber-baron capitalism, anarchism, sociobiology – haven’t ceased to be controversial since the publication in 1859 of his On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. More than a century later, Darwin’s name continues to divide not only the devout from the doubting, but also liberals from conservatives and biologists from social scientists. Various Darwinisms stand accused of complicity in scientific racism and sexism for having asserted that inequalities between white and black and between men and women were the ineradicable outcome of nature rather than the insidious work of culture. A new book on avowedly Darwinian approaches to psychology, linguistics or literary theory can still ignite a bonfire of partisan reviews and counter-reviews. Historians of science have in the past few decades meticulously documented how closely intertwined Darwin’s biological theories were with the most dismal strands of political economy, its Malthusian insistence on the inevitability of hunger and death. Yet Darwin the man remains irresistibly sympathetic, charming the most hard-boiled reader with candid doubts about his own arguments, stories about his pet dogs, or a flowering of Miltonian metaphor amid a dry description of gaps in the fossil record.

There is, too, the paradox of the likeable, plodding genius. Kant famously doubted whether even Newton could qualify as a true genius, since all science, however difficult, could in principle be taught to others, while authentic genius defied imitation. Once the Romantics commandeered the notion of genius, inimitable originality came to be fused with Byronic extravagance or melancholy solitude: Wordsworth’s Newton ‘voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone’. The genius breaks the mould of past thought, and is isolated by prescience and profundity from ordinary mortals; genius commands awe, not affection. These otherworldly associations still shape the prevailing mythology of modern scientific geniuses, despite the countervailing biographical evidence: abstracted Einstein, ethereal Oppenheimer, disembodied Hawking.

On this view it is perfectly acceptable, even predictable, that the budding genius should make a poor academic showing early in life, pointing up the distance between inspiration and convention. In this regard, Darwin made a promising start with his lacklustre school record, calling down his father’s fury when he fled medical school in Edinburgh: ‘You care for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.’ But at some point, preferably before the age of thirty, the standard script demands that the fireworks begin (and the preferred metaphors are indeed pyrotechnical: ‘explosions’, ‘flashes’, ‘illuminations’). With a loud bang and a dazzling burst of brilliance, the young genius, driven by an inner daemon, destroys the old order and erects a new one in its place. When the Origin was published, by contrast, Darwin was a placid, middle-aged country gentleman and doting paterfamilias, who described his own foremost scientific talents as perseverance and attention to detail. No one doubted that he had brought about a revolution, but in his amiable ordinariness he was a most unlikely candidate for genius.

Janet Browne’s magisterial two-volume biography of Darwin takes as its epigraph a line from The Woman in White: ‘We don’t want genius in this country, unless it is accompanied by respectability.’ Darwin was a genius tailor-made to Victorian measure, a genius of the slow accumulation of facts and ideas in methodically kept notebooks. He was not eccentric, much less erratic. He prided himself on prudent investments and punctually answered letters. His sense of gentlemanly honour included his charitable duties to the parish poor, the care required to make a reliable observation in natural history, and the obligation to deal fairly with a rival in a ticklish matter of scientific priority. In his youth he had craved adventure in the form of a five-year round-the-world voyage on HMS Beagle, but Navy life and roughing it in the wildest parts of South America only cemented the routines that sustained his life thereafter. Browne goes so far as to compare his Kentish country house, Down, to a ‘self-contained, self-regulating scientific ship methodically ploughing onwards through the waves outside . . . almost as if he were on the Beagle again, sailing into some unknown port, where people felt it was a natural consequence of English life that he should ask and that they should do.’

As this last phrase hints, neither Darwin on the Beagle nor Darwin at Down ever worked in isolation, though Darwin himself sometimes managed to convey an impression of the solitary sage. Besides the retinue of colleagues and assistants, family and servants, all at his bidding, there was a far-flung and densely woven network of informants and correspondents ready to answer the most arcane queries about the sex life of barnacles, pigeon breeding, the facial expressions of the insane, the life-cycle of jellyfish, carnivorous plants, the germination of waterlogged seeds, and whatever else might suddenly strike him as relevant to the investigation at hand. Browne reconstructs this network, filament by filament, and stresses its cumulative importance to Darwin’s researches: any one bit of information gleaned, for example, from his hairdresser on thoroughbred hounds, or from a zoo-keeper on orangutans, might have been incidental, but the sum total of data gathered in Darwin’s conversations and correspondence was massive and decisive. If there was one crucial difference between Darwin and the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace, it was what Wallace himself praised as the ‘vast accumulation of evidence’ mustered in the Origin. Over the years, Darwin had drawn together an encyclopedia of facts to support his argument, and those facts had in large part found their way to his study in Down via the efficient Victorian postal system. Here, as elsewhere, Browne uses Darwin’s household account books, kept as meticulously as his scientific notebooks, to excellent effect. She notes that in 1877 Darwin spent about as much on postage and stationery as he did on his butler’s annual salary; something like fourteen thousand letters have survived in collections scattered around the world.

Browne’s attention to Darwin’s network of helpers and informants is emblematic of the context she has chosen for her subject: ‘Darwin did not simply sit in the middle of Victorian society soaking up the overriding themes of the age. On the contrary, Victorian society made him. He built his theory out of information physically extracted from others.’ In the other major recent English-language biography, Adrian Desmond and James Moore’s Darwin (1991), the events in Darwin’s life were juxtaposed with the great social and political upheavals of his times: Darwin against the background of the Chartists, the Crystal Palace, the Paris Commune, the Crimean War. Browne never loses sight of the social and economic structures that underpinned the Darwin household but she chooses to work at a more intimate level. Like Desmond and Moore, she records Darwin’s outrage, as the scion of two prominent abolitionist families, at the views of the Beagle’s Tory Captain Robert FitzRoy concerning slavery in Brazil. But whereas Desmond and Moore are content to remark that ‘in his Whig heart Darwin knew wrong from right,’ Browne goes on to point out that however sincerely and vehemently the Darwins and Wedgwoods opposed slavery, their family fortunes depended on the exploitation of labour under conditions that would not have stood up to close moral scrutiny.

Browne has a sharp eye for Darwin’s convenient self-deceptions and faits accomplis; how, for example, he deployed his very real sufferings from stomach ailments and eczema to avoid dreaded social obligations, including the funerals of the two men who had done most to make possible his career as a naturalist: his father, and his scientific mentor, the Cambridge professor John Henslow. While Desmond and Moore’s style was colourful, punchy and occasionally melodramatic, liberally embellished with exclamation marks, the tone of Browne’s writing, though no less vivid, is often lightly ironic. She has Darwin showing off to Henslow on botanical excursions into the countryside; pleading a bad headache after proposing to his cousin Emma Wedgwood; pretending to be a bee in order to investigate the pollination of garden peas (and concluding that London bees were less likely to be deceived than their country cousins); feeding insectivorous sundew plants first flies, then milk, and finally tea and sherry; taking the fashionable water cure; enlisting his family to serenade worms with bassoon, whistle and piano. Browne recounts such episodes with understated drollery, often allowing Darwin’s wife, Emma, the last, tart word, as on the worm experiments: Charles ‘has taken to training earthworms, but does not make much progress, as they can neither see nor hear’.

Browne portrays Darwin as deeply rooted in family and country life, to the point that his scientific work became almost indistinguishable from the workings of his large household. The Darwin-Wedgwood clan was large and close-knit: the family trees criss-crossed with cousins’ intermarriages, as in the cases of Emma and Charles (Darwin’s mother, Susannah, had also been a Wedgwood), his sister Susan and Josiah Wedgwood III, and Charles’s good friend and cousin Hensleigh Wedgwood, who had married his cousin Fanny Mackintosh, who in turn was probably the love of Darwin’s elder brother Erasmus’s life. (Readers will find themselves constantly referring to the genealogical table thoughtfully provided at the beginning of Vol. I, and wishing that it had been appended to Vol. II as well.) Later in life, bedevilled by his own illnesses and desolate over the deaths of three of his ten children, Darwin worried about the deleterious effects of such inbreeding, but the strong preference for the company of family persisted for generations among the Darwins. One of his grandchildren recalled that old and young alike cried out ‘Visitors! Danger!’ whenever the doorbell rang at Down during family gatherings.

The family connections were distinguished as well as tangled. Both of Darwin’s grandfathers were remarkable men, members of the Lunar Society of Birmingham and alert to every progressive current in late 18th-century Britain, from Whig reforms to Watt’s steam engine. Erasmus Darwin was a successful physician of libertine leanings, who composed treatises of Linnaean natural history in fulsome verse and advanced his own speculative theory of the transmutation of species. Josiah Wedgwood I established the pottery firm that still bears his name. Darwin’s father, Robert Waring Darwin, also became a doctor, though the comfortable situation in which he left his sons Charles and Erasmus, neither of whom ever had to work for a living, owed more to shrewd money-lending than to his thriving practice. Both fiscal and medical acumen derived from the same faculty of attentive observation that Charles later recalled as his father’s distinguishing trait and his own most precious scientific gift. Dr Darwin’s scrupulously kept ‘garden book’, in which Charles learned as a child to note seasonal changes on the model of the 18th-century country naturalist Gilbert White of Selborne, was perhaps the prototype of the countless little notebooks that the adult Darwin carried around in his pocket, ready to jot down observations, notes and conjectures.

Darwin’s mother was only a wisp of a memory to him, having died when he was eight, but his older sisters, especially Caroline and Susan, served in some ways as substitute mothers. His brother Erasmus shared his early enthusiasm for chemistry and natural history, and remained a lifelong confidant. He introduced Charles and Emma to the political economist Harriet Martineau (whom Charles and his sisters once feared might carry Erasmus off in marriage), Thomas and Jane Carlyle, George Eliot and G.H. Lewes. Cash and connections flowed through family channels, and it was the family, too, that could be relied on to nurse invalids, assist with experiments, edit manuscripts, write letters and keep importunate visitors at bay.

This was the family into which Charles Darwin was born and married, and in which he remained. By insisting on the significance of this fact for Darwin’s science and psyche, Browne has redrawn the contours of his life and works. Beyond her deft interweaving of sources, her probing analysis of moods and motives, exquisite (and often exquisitely funny) descriptions of Darwin at work and at rest, and acute insight into his characteristic manner of observation and argument, Browne’s achievement is to show how Darwin’s quiet existence at Down was as important to the making of a scientific revolutionary as his youthful voyage around the world had been in turning him into a dedicated and respected naturalist. The benefits were not only those of financial security, domestic infrastructure and freedom from the bustle and social distractions of London; his environment also afforded him constant contact with plants and animals, and with people whose business it was to know all about variation in nature and the efficacy of breeding. Here Darwin’s charm once again stood him in good stead, as he plied neighbours for information about pigeon breeds, and persuaded friends and family to translate German articles, count snails and boil bird skeletons. ‘When he talked about the “hidden hand” of selection thereafter, he almost always visualised a pigeon breeder picking a favoured bird out of one cage and putting it in with another bird, also chosen for its favourable attributes.’ There is a deliberate symmetry in the titles of Browne’s two volumes, Voyaging (1995) and The Power of Place, meant to convey equality in the balance of influence between the Beagle and Down House.

There is also an innovative symmetry to the attention Browne pays to the pre- and post-Origin parts of Darwin’s life and works. The narrative of Darwin’s life from dissolute university days at Cambridge to the publication of the Origin is a familiar one: the beetle-mad undergraduate, the revelations of the Beagle trip, the long years spent perfecting his heretical theory of the transformation of species in almost total secrecy, the establishment of his reputation among Britain’s scientific elite with monographs on barnacles and coral reefs, his struggles with sickness and family tragedy, the thunderbolt arrival of Wallace’s memoir forestalling his claim to the discovery of natural selection, the whirlwind writing of the Origin, the storm unleashed by its publication in 1859, the international celebrity that followed. By this time, most Darwin biographies are three-quarters over. Yet Darwin did not die until 1882, and the bulk of his scientific oeuvre – nine books – appeared after 1859, including the specialised (though surprisingly popular) monographs on orchids and earthworms, but also the seminal treatises on The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). Almost exactly half of Browne’s two thick volumes is devoted to the post-Origin Darwin, and to the weaving of his activities as indefatigable researcher, behind-the-scenes defender of the evolutionary faith, family patriarch, chronic invalid, country gentleman and great man of science into a story as smooth and powerful as the first half.

Darwin’s friends were almost as loyal as his family. The germination and reception of his work cannot be understood without taking into account the who’s who and the what’s what of the Victorian scientific club (it was much more like a club than a community). Always shy of direct confrontation with opponents, and only too glad to take refuge in his sickbed rather than attend meetings, Darwin nonetheless energetically orchestrated his scientific campaigns through a barrage of letters to allies near and far. The anatomist Thomas Henry Huxley and the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, enlisted as his willing lieutenants. Fresh recruits such as the Harvard botanist Asa Gray or the German naturalist Ernst Haeckel were welcomed warmly into the fold. More equivocal support came from his foreign translators, including the social reformer and feminist Clémence Royer, who insisted on inserting Lamarckian ideas and adding footnotes at odds with Darwin’s text to her French version of the Origin. In a fine parody of Darwin’s own clumsiness in foreign tongues, Emma recorded her husband’s vexation with ‘the verdammte Mlle Royer whose blunders are endless’. Darwin privately despaired when his friends faltered in their dedication to the evolutionary cause: the geologist Charles Lyell’s disappointing timidity about human origins in his Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man (1863), or Wallace’s disconcerting turn to spiritualism. But Darwin never turned his back on his friends, however wayward; he exerted all his influence to secure a government pension for the penniless, medium-struck Wallace. It is difficult to imagine any other pair of scientific rivals (Newton and Leibniz, say) behaving with such unfailing magnanimity towards one another.

When Darwin died, his scientific friends quickly organised petitions to have him buried at Westminster Abbey, a testimony not only to his own fame but also to the growing authority of science in late 19th-century culture. Darwin himself would probably have been nonplussed by the eulogies, especially by the opinion expressed in the Pall Mall Gazette that the ‘greatest Englishman since Newton’ had just been laid to rest. Whenever Darwin had wanted gently to discourage reflection on the theological import of his evolutionary theories, he protested that it was futile for him to contemplate such lofty matters: ‘A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.’ Everything about Darwin’s temperament and talents would have inclined him to identify with the dog rather than Newton: he had never progressed beyond the binomial theorem in algebra, and besides, he adored dogs.

His genius was of an entirely different kind, concentrated in the eyes. He had been impressed by the excellent eyesight of the inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego in part because he was so proud of his own keen vision. But he saw close as well as far, and his chief scientific pleasures came from developing an eye for minute organic differences – the generative organs of barnacles, the top-knots of pigeons, the frills of orchids. Slowly, these details accumulated in his notebooks alongside his attempts to fit them into patterns, a process as remote from the fireworks of Romantic genius as the gradual evolutionary mechanisms he posited were unlike the catastrophes of floods and volcanoes proposed by earlier theorists. Darwin himself described his most marked mental traits as ‘steadiness’ and ‘great curiosity about facts and their meaning’, adding proudly that he was ‘very methodical in all my habits’. He might also have noted his great knack for getting on with people and coaxing out of them yet more facts for those voracious notebooks – a genius for geniality.